Forest fires threaten Tunisia's ecosystem

In recent years, forest fires have ravaged many hectares of woodlands and green areas throughout the country, especially in the summer season.
Friday 03/07/2020
A file picture of a blaze spreading through the hills of the Monatazah Ennahli Park, north of Tunis. (AFP)
A file picture of a blaze spreading through the hills of the Monatazah Ennahli Park, north of Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Last June, a fire was put out in an alfa plantation in Tunisia’s central town of Kasserine that officials warn is part of a series of threats to the country’s forest ecosystem.

The plantation belongs to the Office of State Land, and the fire destroyed seven hectares of alfa and prickly pears, Tunisia news agency reported, noting that six successive fires had hit the Kallel region last May.

The incidents in Kallel were not unique. In recent years, forest fires have ravaged many hectares of woodlands and green areas throughout the country, especially in the summer season. While heat waves have been responsible for some of the fires, others, like the recent outbreak in Kallel, were acts of arson.

"The fires are man-made,” Sbeitla Hakim Hizi, who oversees the region’s forests, told Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), noting that the Civil Protection Units and Forest Services in the northern Bargou region had previously managed to put out a fire in Mount Bou tiss.

That fire began at the base of the mountain in a grain field after the harvest, Local Civil Protection Director in Siliana Colonel Adel Abidi told TAP. Five fire trucks were mobilised to fight the fire that spread to hard-to-reach places. Approximately 3 hectares were affected.

The Tunisian Forestry Administration warns that the waves of forest fires, in addition to illegal logging that increased during the coronavirus lockdown, threaten Tunisia's ecosystem and have disastrous impacts on the country's economy.

The multidisciplinary scientific committee in charge of assessing the damage caused by the illegal felling of trees in the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that more than 400 non-renewable beech trees have been cut down in Ain Salam forest in the north-western town Ain Draham.

"These trees, which are more than 200 years old, are being randomly thrown onto the edges of forest tracks,” according to the same report presented by the committee's chairman, Youssef Ammari, TAP reported.

The committee said that the crimes threaten Tunisia’s ecosystem and environmental heritage.

According to a report monitoring forest violations during the quarantine period, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights NGO called on Tunisians to unite to protect the environment.

"The trees represent a wealth and an ecological heritage that cannot be compensated,” said Mounyara al-Majbri,a member of the Environmental Justice Team of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Tunisia’s forest area is comprised of more than 6 million hectares. These green spaces, which are mostly in the north-west, shelter about 10% of Tunisia’s population.

Adel Al-Hantani, an environmental expert focused on sustainable development, classifies Tunisia’s forest in two categories: original ones, which have shrunk to around 600,000 hectares, and those developed since 1961, whose area is now between 700,000 and 800,000 hectares.

"Indigenous forests include rare plant species that are not renewed, some dating back 4,000 years and facing decades of climate change,” Hantani told the DPA news agency.

"Since two decades, forests have witnessed losses at the rate of 12 thousand hectares annually due to fires, some of which are natural and some of them are arson, and also due to logging,” he added.

Forests contribute significantly to the country’s economic development by providing jobs for guards and civil protection agents and through their animal and plant resources.

But this sector faces serious administrative problems. A report by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights revealed management problems in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries for four vital sectors: water, forestry, agriculture and marine fishing.

The report also revealed there are an insufficient number of forest guards throughout the country (less than 7,500), who are often paid low salaries and have limited means of transportation and monitoring.

The report also drew attention to suspicions of corruption regarding the issuance of permits relating to pastures and logging regulation, which can lead to charcoal and timber merchants violating the system.

"The current situation threatens rare wild animals,” Hantani said, stressing the importance of protecting forests in Tunisia through new legislation and increased monitoring.